Weston, IL: How nuclear research and the mob stopped a suburb from getting built

Weston, IL: How nuclear research and the mob stopped a suburb from getting built

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(photo by Lee Bey)

I read about The Unbuilt Berlin, an intriguing exhibition in Berlin that showcases a century’s worth of unbuilt designs. (Martin Wagner’s 1929 scheme for Potsdamer Platz is both wonderful and scary.)

This blog has discussed unbuilt Chicago architecture from Schaumburg’s world’s tallest building to the Chicago Civic Center Plan. Today, we dig into our files to present not just a building, but an entire town that was never realized: Weston, IL–an instant city of 50,000 planned for DuPage County. The image above is a portion of a giant model of the town, the brainchild of developer William G. Riley.

Riley announced the plans in January, 1964. But before the year was over, the state was offering the would-be town to the Atomic Energy Commission in hopes of landing a nuclear accelerator. DuPage County prosecutors sued to prevent the town from incorporating and Riley was bankrupt and hiding out from the mob. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.

(photo by Lee Bey)

Weston had been a small unincorporated farming community 30 miles west of Chicago. When it gained about 100 modest new postwar homes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it didn’t take long to see that the town, close to the expressway and tollway system, had potential. Riley, who had been a successful apartment building developer in the 1960s (his specialty was a building type he called “Swingles” for “swinging singles”), saw his chance.

Riley took out ads promising low taxes and affordable utilities in the “wondrous city of Weston.” There would be more than 11,000 residences, from apartments to estate-style houses; four man-made lakes; churches; polo fields….even a 105 acre, single-runway airport named for Amelia Earhart, located near Wiley Post Lane. The circular buildings in the photo that tops this post would have been the Rainbow Shopping Center, touted as the world’s largest shopping center with nearly 2,000 stores. It still would be the largest, had it been built. Canada’s 800-store West Edmonton Mall and the 520-shop Mall of America in Bloomington, MN are near strip malls by comparison.

Did Riley have the financing? Likely not, according to a former village trustee I interviewed about this a couple of years ago. “The plans were futuristic,” he told me. “But they were not realistic.” Soon it wouldn’t matter much. Two weeks after the grand unveiling, the DuPage County State’s Attorney sued, claiming the village wasn’t properly incorporated and thus lacked the legal power to annex land for Riley’s project. In April, 1964, Riley announced the project was dead and blamed the suit’s delays.

“Humanity’s loss,” he said of the Weston defeat, “is greater than ours.”

But here’s what nobody knew then: Riley was bankrupt and in trouble with the Outfit. Two years earlier, he tried building a “swingle” in Northlake when the town’s crime boss demanded a $70,000 payment for the privilege. After that, the mob forced its way on all of Riley’s projects, no matter where they were being built and shook him down for thousands in protection money all the while. He was $1 million in debt when Weston was announced. And when he complained to the crime boss Joseph Amabile about it, he got hit in the face and threatened with lit cigarettes and a baseball bat.

Turns out the IRS was investigating Northlake and turned its attention to Riley shortly after the Weston announcement. Pinned down by debt, the mob and federal tax evasion charges, Riley went into protective custody in exchange for testifying against the mob. Riley’s work on the witness stand helped send several folks to prison between 1967 and 1972, including Amabile, a Northlake mayor, and Riley’s own construction boss. Riley got a new identity and the trail grows cold afterward.

By the time the trials ended, Weston was only a memory. The National Accelerator Laboratory–later named Fermilab—occupies a small portion of what would have been Riley’s town. Bison brought in from the outset by Fermilab officials now roam the grounds where Riley’s new Weston might have been.